In a relationship too often defined by mutual distrust, the United States and China have stumbled towards an unexpected opportunity for mutual cooperation.
A combination of Chinese strategic missteps in East Asia and American fatigue in West Asia has both countries searching for diplomatic measures to enhance security. The United States, the world’s preeminent power, and China, the world’s strongest rising power, share common interests in the Middle East, namely energy and maritime security. These shared interests offer new ways for these two powers to cooperate and weaken bilateral mistrust. Simultaneously, mutual agreement between the world’s two largest economies could assist in the stabilization of a region currently defined by upheaval.
Chinese Miscalculation and American Fatigue
As tensions within the Korean Peninsula continue to flare, Chinese strategic thinking has started to accept a new reality—the People’s Republic of China sits amid turmoil, partially of its own creation. Five years of projecting regional hegemony led many of its East Asian neighbors to strengthen ties with the United States. Regional economic and political cooperation, long a reliable strength in East Asia, shows signs of fraying. Finally, China’s sole regional allied partner, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, has tested Chinese patience. In short, China’s overt policy of peaceful development runs counter to prevailing trends in its own region and exposes weaknesses in China’s overall strategic thinking.
China’s domestic debate regarding its foreign relations is as varied as that found in the United States, but one rising trend inside China helps to explain its miscalculations abroad. For the past several decades, Chinese nationalism has been on the rise. The Chinese Communist Party, moving away from socialist ideology and towards quasi capitalism, actively encouraged nationalist sentiment as a tool to retain legitimacy. This has proven useful for internal politics, but was detrimental to foreign relations.
Chinese nationalism finds expression by arguing that over the course of recorded human history the nation was the primary (or at least one) center of power. It is only in the last century that China has fallen from preeminence and it is the duty of China’s citizens to endeavor to restore its natural position.
What plays well on Chinese Central TV and in the People’s Daily does not sit easily abroad. Perceptions of China are darkening in the region, assisted by Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea and tensions throughout much of Southeast Asia between various ethnic minorities and overseas Chinese populations. Official statements regarding the Chinese nation, combined with the occasional overexuberance of Chinese netizens, have created a perception among its neighbors that China wants to dominate East Asia, not lead it.
Added to negative perceptions are additions to China’s hard power, namely the increased influence of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) within Chinese politics and the advancing capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). China’s investment in its military has encouraged similar investments by neighboring countries in reaction. The common emergence of territorial disputes, particularly in the East and South China Seas, created fear that the region may soon be gripped by a serious military clash. Some compare contemporary East Asia today to the Balkans of the early twentieth century, but this view ignores the presence of stabilizing factors like regional trade. Altogether, it is neither surprising nor unwelcome that China is seeking to build up international goodwill within other regions.
As for the United States, the American electorate is tired of military conflict and the country’s involvement in the Middle East. Others have discussed the costs of the Iraq and Afghan Wars—and many in the United States and around the world question the benefits of such a large investment of blood and treasure.
Furthermore, the Middle East and the larger West Asian region is as unstable as it has ever been, despite a continuous and substantial presence by the United States meant in part to provide stability. Syria has devolved into outright civil war, Israel is wary over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and Egypt is on the edge of an economic and political cliff. Given the continuing pressures of the U.S. domestic economy, it is not surprising that U.S. foreign policy has shifted from a more aggressive and unilateral approach to one premised on diplomatic partnerships and shared costs.
The Opportunity in West Asia
The United States and China have much to offer each other in West Asia that can help to alleviate bilateral tensions. But both countries need to realize that their respective biases do not necessarily block opportunities for cooperation.
The United States will remain heavily involved in the Middle East, and China is certain to take a greater interest in the region as its energy needs expand. Failing to move beyond fears and towards interests threatens to turn West Asia into the same complicated mess that currently defines East Asia. Just like the United States, China’s national security is tied to stable oil supplies from the Middle East.
The first step is for the United States to recognize that China’s rise is assured. As Chinese economic interests spread abroad, so too will China’s political and security interests. Likewise, the Chinese must also recognize that the United States will remain the world’s strongest political and military force for years to come. Chinese news agencies and the Chinese Communist Party have long argued that the United States is a diminishing power that will be eclipsed by China. These estimations are exaggerated due to the continued strength of American technological innovation, financial markets and new-industry development.
Second, both countries need to view each other’s respective foreign policies as multifaceted, not merely as extensions of the military. The much-debated “rebalance” to Asia is not a tool to surround China. If anything, the “rebalance” should be seen as a means by which to protect the economic engines of East Asia and give the United States a strong stake in the economic game. Thus, U.S. attention in East Asia is about trade—between the United States and Southeast Asia, Northeast Asia, and yes, China.
Developed over the past several years, the “String of Pearls” argument states that China invests in strategically vital locales to expand its influence and box in rivals, while achieving the capability to project hard power far beyond its region. The United States must recognize that argument is an overly complex construct that is highly unrealistic given China’s resources. Though there is a defense component, the primary purpose of these ports has always been to further enrich Chinese commerce. Additionally, China has multiple options available to it as it expands its international footprint and does not necessarily need to rely on the String of Pearls model.
Third, both countries need to recognize what each can offer the other. The United States’ long history in the Mediterranean, Gulf and Levant regions provides insight into the forces that shape each particular country. China does not share this history, and its recent involvement in West Asia is defined by lost opportunity and increased suspicion. The United States could assist in creating coordinated efforts between regional countries and China within the realms of international trade, regional security and energy.
For decades, the United States was the primary country that was a continuous presence in West Asia. This investment has secured regional trade, energy markets, and maritime security. Yet, during that time the American people have paid a high cost and the country has made many mistakes in its interactions with the region. Now that the shale oil and gas boom in the United States gathers speed, there is not as strong a need for the United States to provide its traditional role. It will not disengage from the region, but its footprint may become smaller.
Finally, both countries need to be clear about their limitations. Opportunities exist in the realms of maritime security, energy security, Persian Gulf regional cooperation and North African economic investment. Yet little to no cooperation will occur on Syria, Iran or Israel in the short term. Those particular issues should not define the bilateral relationship, as a direct discussion could derail progress made in other sectors. It is better to initially focus discussions of Syria, Iran and Israel within international organizations like the United Nations and other preexisting frameworks.
Likewise, China will never alter its foreign-policy foundations due to circumstances in the region. Its priorities of peaceful development and economic relations will take priority over any overt political or military investment until the internal politics of the Chinese Communist Party change. The United States will continue to promote democracy in the region and maintain its ongoing military operations targeting violent extremist groups.
The Sino-American relationship will be the most important relationship this century. But it should be expected that these two major powers will disagree regularly and remain suspicious of each other’s motives.
The current situation in East Asia, the result of Chinese overreach and underlying regional tensions, provides evidence that an alliance between these two powerful countries is unlikely. Still, the world’s two leading powers are not enemies, and viewing the relationship in adversarial terms alone hides valuable opportunities. Billions of dollars in trade occur between the two each year.